Guardian News and Media/London
Jeremy Hunt has increased the pressure on Boris Johnson to explain why police were called to his home after a row with his partner by warning that the Conservative leadership frontrunner “needs to show he can answer difficult questions”.
Hunt – whose remarks follow calls by the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, for Johnson to explain himself – used a television interview to suggest his leadership rival had shied away from scrutiny, telling Sky News: “This is an audition to be prime minister of the UK … If Boris is refusing to answer questions in the media, refusing to do live debates then of course people are thinking, just who are we going to get as PM?”
The foreign secretary added: “What happens in people’s personal lives is really a matter for them.” But his intervention over Johnson’s refusal to engage with the media will be seen as a coded reference to his opponent’s appearance at the first hustings of the leadership race on Saturday, in which he stonewalled persistent questions about the incident, which took place in the early hours of Friday morning.
Asked if he agreed with claims that Johnson’s private life made him a security risk, Hunt said: “I would never make those comments myself.”
The story emerged after a neighbour told the Guardian he had been so concerned by a loud, late-night altercation between Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, that he had felt obliged to call the police. Other neighbours confirmed the row took place and said they had been concerned by its intensity.
Hunt’s attack is the latest broadside in a ferocious debate over Johnson’s conduct, in which a number of senior Conservatives have called on the frontrunner to explain what happened.
Yesterday morning, Fox said it was time for Johnson to openly explain the incident so the contest could get away from “these distractions” and return to the two candidates’ plans as prime minister.
Fox, a supporter of Hunt, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It’s always easier to give an explanation, then we can discuss the policies.”
The former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind also urged Johnson to explain what happened or arouse suspicions that he was hiding something.
He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “If you are a candidate to be prime minister and the police have been called to your house – fairly or unfairly – the fact is there was a police visit. You don’t just say ‘no comment’. That implies you may have something you don’t want to disclose.
“It was a lack of judgment to refuse to even make a short comment. All he could have said, quite reasonably, would have been that in all relationships there are occasionally outbursts of anger and disagreement.”
Asked yesterday about the incident, Johnson’s supporters insisted it was irrelevant to the leadership contest. The chief secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, told BBC Radio 5 Live: “There’s no point in asking me, I believe it’s a private matter, I don’t think the public are concerned about that.”
Police confirmed they were called to the couple’s south London flat after a loud argument was heard by neighbours, who said they heard slamming and banging, adding that at one point Symonds could be heard telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”.
A poll conducted on Saturday showed support for Johnson had fallen sharply following the incident. His eight-point lead earlier in the week had fallen to three points behind Hunt by Saturday morning. Among Tory voters, when asked who would make the best prime minister, Johnson’s lead had slumped from 27% to 11% in the same period, according to Survation, which carried out the polls for the Mail on Sunday.
Andrew Gwynne, the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, said Johnson was “completely unsuitable” to be prime minister.
He told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge yesterday: “In one sense, of course, it is a private matter, but when you’re running for public office, when you are wanting to be the prime minister of the UK, then these matters are in the public interest.
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